Category Archives: the minimaList

the minimaList: why living small is great

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Living small is our normal.  All of our friends in the city live in apartments or condos, and a lot of them have children of their own.  No one complains that their living space is too small.  We’re all to busy playing outside and getting lots of fresh air, playing with our kids.

Our urban centre is a beautiful, vibrant downtown area filled with lots of green trees and parks.  Of course, the city has its fair share of concrete, cars and construction, but for the most part, it’s not overwhelming.  We consider ourselves very lucky to live where we do, and even though others (namely, our families) think we could do with more living space, we’re content in our 828 square feet for right now.

There are so many benefits to living in a small space.  It’s easy to forget that most of the world does not live in large, McMansion-style homes, even though that’s the norm for a lot of us in North America.  And of course, living in a small home means taking into consideration what we are consuming and bringing into our home – that discussion is a lot more immediate than it would be if we had a larger home.

Here’s just a few reasons why living small is so great:

  1. Living small means less stuff.  Our home is just over 800 square feet.  For our family of four, that means about 200 square feet for each person.  In reality, we have much less space for our personal belongings, as a lot of our home is shared space (a living room and kitchen occupies half of our small home).  My kids share a room that is 100 square feet, but they still have room for their most precious things.  Overall, having less stuff means less time spent managing said stuff, and more time doing other things.
  2. Living small means less cleaning.  This is one of my favourite things about living small.  I hate organizing (I’d rather donate or toss things than try to organize them), and I am HUGE on keeping our home clutter-free.  Keeping our small abode free from clutter makes cleaning up easier, and having a minimal amount of clothing and personal belongings makes our daily rhythm a lot simpler.  Given one morning, I can clean every square inch of my home – this would include a very thorough cleaning of the kitchen, bathrooms, vacuuming, washing floors, washing sheets and linens, and clothing laundry.  Might even be able to get some dusting in there somewhere.  I try to do little bits at a time to keep the amount of cleaning from being overwhelming, but even when things build up, it’s nice to know that a commitment of a couple of hours can have everything back to tip-top shape.
  3. Living small means easier access to all the fun stuff in our city.  We use our home as a launch pad for getting out into our city and doing fun things.  We’re lucky to live in a neighbhourhood where we have access to several parks and playgrounds in our immediate vicinity, as well as amazing sites such as the Vancouver Aquarium and Granville Island.  Having desirable venues minutes away by car or literally steps from our own front door is priceless, and we’d be hard-pressed to find such convenience in many other neighbourhoods that feature large homes as opposed to small ones like ours.
  4. Living small means living with financial order and security.  This point is probably one that will resonate with the most number of people, and really, it’s the most practical reason to live small or at least live within your means.  We’re lucky in that we’ve never felt the need to compete with others in the lifestyle department, so we’ve pretty much never moved beyond living like university students.  Sure, our kids have added a few extra monthly expenses (food!), but for the most part, kids don’t cost that much and neither does living small.  It’s a lot easier to pay your bills when there are less bills to pay.
  5. Living small means more flexibility in life and possibly better health overall.  All of us could live with less stress.  Living small can be a great alleviator of stress:  Less stuff to clean?  Less stress.  More leisure time and less time spent working?  Less stress.  Less bills to pay?  Less stress.  More money in the bank?  Less stress!  All of the above mentioned things are great reasons to live small and stay within your means, but the most important reason is that it allows us to not only live with less material things, but to have a richer life in other areas that don’t relate to consumption and to alleviate some of the stress we place on ourselves to constantly be participating in a consumer-driven lifestyle.

I would equate living small as a similar experience to living in a hotel.  Some people might think, “That’s CRAZY! Who in their right mind would want to live in a space that SMALL?” – however, there are great benefits to be had.  As Christine from 100 things 100 days writes,

Seriously, have you ever walked into a hotel room and thought: what this place is missing is a whole lot of my crap?

My answer to that question, thankfully, is a resounding “no.”  We’re lucky to love living in a small home and we generally don’t miss any of the crap that comes along with home ownership on a larger scale.  We still have things that we don’t love, but we’re trying to own very little of those and certainly have less of those type of things than we would have if we owned a house or a larger home.

I know it’s the path less-travelled to live in a small home.  But none of us are suffering.  In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite.  We’re thriving, because we’ve recognized what is important to us.  Having enriching experiences is a lot more fun than having a bunch of “stuff” lying around our tiny abode, and owning a smaller home is a lot easier and less stressful than owning a house and all of the additional responsibilities that go along with it.

the minimaList: my 12 year old cell phone still works

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I live in a pretty trendy neighbourhood, where it feels like people have the shiniest, newest accessories.  This is especially true when it comes to the latest technology.  I have friends with iPhones, iPads and Blackberrys.  And they are all stay-at-home mothers.  I contemplated getting an iPad for Christmas last year for all of five minutes.  However, our home is small and my home computer is never more than a few feet away.  And although the portability of an iPad is fantastic, I would probably never have an occasion to use it anywhere outside my home.  It just didn’t make sense to buy one in the end.

One item I do carry with me daily is a cell phone.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that I carry around some fancy technology with which to make phone calls to all my friends and family.  My cell phone is over 10 years old.  But it works just fine.  It can make phone calls and accept text messages (but I never use it for texting).  It even has call display!  I make, at most, one phone call on it per day. So I don’t really have a need for a cell phone with all the bells and whistles.

It feels like a backlash might be starting against smart phones and whether they are completely necessary, or more a tool that can have a negative influence on our lives.  The World Health Organization reported last week that cell phone use can possibly increase the risk of cancer.  Rachel wrote a post this week about how her life has benefited from letting go of her iPhone.  Katy from The Non-Consumer Advocate wrote a great post today titled, “Can You Be Smart Without a Smart Phone?”  I would argue, yes.  Here’s a few reasons why I haven’t bought into the smart phone culture:

  1. It’s expensive.  I’ll admit I think iPhones are cool for all their capabilities and I even checked into pricing this past weekend.  Whoa, Nelly.  I don’t really want to spend several hundred dollars to own that little piece of plastic, nor do I dream of spending over a hundred dollars a month for connectivity.  The cost alone is enough to deter me at this point, but there are other reasons why I’m not jumping all over a new phone right now.
  2. It would further enable to my love of the internet.  I tend to spend a fair bit of my free time on the internet when I am at home, surfing or reading articles or blogs.  If you were to hand me a device that allowed me to do that on the go, I’d be in real trouble.  It might develop into a habit I wouldn’t be too proud of, so for that reason, I’m opting out.
  3. It doesn’t jive with my personal values.  I don’t want to become one of those people that whips out their smart phone to begin texting someone else when they are in the middle of a conversation with a real, breathing person.  I am not defined by my connectedness to the internet, but rather my connectedness to other people and the enjoyment I derive from spending time with others.
  4. I want to be present in my daily life.  I want to appreciate the world around me, and that’s something I just can’t be fully conscious of if I have my nose buried in an iPhone when I am outside.  I want to see my kids running on the playground and playing with their friends, and I don’t need to be taking calls or checking my email while I do that.  I also want to set an example for my children that it’s important not to be tethered to a machine – it’s hard to set that example when you’re tethered to one yourself.

Maybe in the future I’ll reconsider getting an iPad or even make the leap to a smart phone with all the fancy apps.  Who knows, maybe I’m missing out on an enlightened life by not owning an iPhone.  But I’m okay with that.  For where I am right now.

Do you own a smart phone?  If so, do you feel it contributes to your life in a beneficial way?

the minimaList: school’s out for summer

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As we find ourselves in the last month of the school year, the minds of parents often drift to thinking of buying an end of school year gift for your child’s teacher. For our family, this practice started two years ago when our oldest started preschool.  At the time, he had two lovely teachers and we gladly put together gifts for each of them to thank them for such a wonderful year.  Ditto for the next year, as he was at the same school and had the same delightful teachers.  This year, my son is in kindergarten and again has two teachers.  As I was beginning to consider what sort of gift to buy for each of these two very different people, one of the class parents put together a proposal that money be collected from parents who wanted to participate in a group gift.  She proposed that the gift would consist of a gift certificate for each teacher, as well as a digitally-created memory book that contained photos of the children and some of their personal artwork.  And the amount for all of these fabulous gifts? Only $20.

Let me tell you,  I did a small dance of joy when I got that email.  Here’s why:

  1. The value of this gift is going to be priceless.  The children will each be creating their own work of art with the teacher in mind, and their personal words of thanks and appreciation will be included in the photo book for the teacher.  I can’t speak for the teacher here, but I know if I was given a gift as thoughtful as this, I would be crying like a baby.
  2. Time spent not shopping will be better spent elsewhere.  I will not be required to spend any time shopping for gifts, or any time traveling to a shopping centre where I would surely have spent a considerable amount of time deliberating over whether my gift was “enough.”
  3. Gift cards as gifts means no packaging or wasteful wrapping.  The gift cards will be chosen for each teacher based on their lifestyle or personal interests – one teacher is a young mother and would probably relish a day a the spa, and the other is passionate about music and would love a gift certificate to indulge his passion.
  4. More bang for my buck.  There is no way on earth I could have put together such a fabulous gift for $10 per person.  It just wouldn’t be realistic.  The reality is I would have probably spent a lot more money than that trying to accomplish the same thing, but not coming anywhere near as close to the level of thoughtfulness that the proposed gifts will achieve.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled and I’ve already put in my twenty bucks.  Can’t wait to put the time I would have spent shopping out at the park on a sunny afternoon with my kids.  I think I’ll do that this afternoon.

Now that we’re nearing the end of the school year, are you buying or making anything to thank your children’s teachers?  If you homeschool, do you take the time to acknowledge your own contribution as parent/teacher? 

the minimaList: the joys of toys

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At one point, we had a lot of toys.  With two kids, a small space and a lot of very generous family members and friends, it was easy for things to get overwhelming pretty quickly in the toy department.  I think the kids were pretty overwhelmed with all of the toy clutter too.

"But I only have two hands, Mom!"

Most of the toys in the above picture no longer live in our home.  The kids didn’t question the toys leaving the house, and they haven’t asked for a single toy since they all left.  It was a slow process which began with getting rid of toys that had been outgrown, and continued on to toys that were unloved or just didn’t get played with very often (or at all).  Next on the chopping block were toys that had a million pieces – these always ended up getting dumped out of a basket and onto the floor, and then left there for me to pick up.  I’ll admit to wanting those gone more than the kids did, mostly because I was always the one who ended up picking up all the tiny pieces that had been left all over the floor and rolled under the couch.  Finally, it was the toys that were liked by the kids well enough but were just so loud and obnoxious that I couldn’t handle keeping them in our tiny home.

How do you go about paring down the kids’ toys when they seem to love everything equally? Here’s what worked for us:

  1. Decide if your child has too much.  First, you need to get all of the toys they own together and decide if there is altogether too much for one child (or more) to take advantage of.  If you have so many toys that the majority of them are “out of rotation” at any given moment, then you might have too much.
  2. Sort the toys into categories, and decide which categories are important to keep.  We kept crafts (which includes paper, crayons and paints), a small tub of kitchen toys, some Playmobil, and a tub of Lego.  This, for us, is a manageable amount of toys.
  3. Purge entire categories if necessary.  We got rid of a huge collection of Hot Wheels cars, as well as a large wooden train set.  As much as I loved some of the toys we got rid of, if kids are more interested in dumping the lot onto the floor than actually playing with the toys once they are there, it’s a big sign that they aren’t really that into the toys themselves or they’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of toys.
  4. Try to sell or donate rather than toss.  We’ve had a lot of success selling our unwanted toys on craiglist.  Find out of there is an online marketplace in your area that will make the process simple, or consider buying a table at a kids swap meet to try to get some money for some of those unwanted toys. Another fun thing to consider is donating the toys, either to an organization that can appropriate them to children in need or to someone in your community.  I’ve donated toys to Gordon Neighborhood House, as well as just posting items for free on our local craiglist.
  5. Purge anything broken or unloved.  Broken toys can be a choking hazard, especially for little ones.  If a toy is of poor quality and is broken beyond repair, I would lean towards tossing it in the trash.  Research the possibility that any broken toys can be recycled, rather than thrown away.
  6. Re-gifting is a form of recycling.  If you have no room for a gift your child has received, consider passing it on at the next birthday party or other gift-giving event.
Finally, I’ve had to curb my own enthusiasm too when it comes to buying toys for my kids. Although most toys we’ve owned were received as birthday or Christmas gifts, I will own up to the fact that I did purchase some of the toys myself.  Before we entered the toy purging phase, I leaned towards buying toys that were well-made or that were expensive.  One of the hardest lessons I learned about buying things for my kids is that just because a toy is expensive does not mean my kid will like it or even play with it.  Now I get to save my money and my sanity – not spending money on toys also translates into not spending any additional time picking up those toys lying all over the floor.

the minimaList: living small

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We have been living in a condo for the past 8 years.  We bought our home in a pre-sale (before it was built) in 2001, and construction was completed in 2003.  While it was just my husband and I living here when we first moved in, we’ve since added two beautiful boys to our family.  While our two bedroom, 828 square foot condo was plenty for two adults, it eventually began to feel small when we had our second child and there were four of us living here.

When I was still pregnant in 2008, we began looking for a larger home to move to, thinking we’d outgrown our space.  Yet, here we are three years later.  We’ve managed to declutter enough stuff from our home, that we could probably stay here for a very long time.  If you’re considering moving to a bigger home because people are constantly telling you “it’s time” or “kids need their own backyard,” consider the following:

  1. Consider the costs:  Consider not only the monthly mortgage and home maintenance costs, but the closing costs associated with buying and selling a home.  Also, a bigger home costs more to furnish, as more rooms means more furniture to buy for those rooms.
  2. Savour the closeness:  Kids are little for such a short period of time, it’s nice to be able to be close to them when we’re at home.  I enjoy being within earshot of my kids at any given moment (less so when they are arguing, of course).  Our small home forces us to get along, because there’s no basement to escape to should there be a disagreement.
  3. Small home, smaller carbon footprint:  The smaller the home, the smaller your family’s environmental footprint.  Your cozy abode will require less energy to operate and smaller homes require less materials be consumed in their production, as well as requiring less furniture to furnish them.  Also, we can joke with our friends that we’re doing our part to not contribute any further to urban sprawl.
  4. Less housework:  This has always seemed like a huge benefit for me.  I like to get as much impact for my effort, so if I can spend less time doing housework and still have a clean home, I’m all for it.  Larger homes require not only more cleaning, but more cleaning products to get the job done.
  5. Listen to your heart:  When others tell you “your home is too small,” or “kids should have their own bedrooms,” don’t sweat it.  No one else has to live in the space but you, so if it is unconventional for others but your family is thriving, then just keep doing what you’re doing.
  6. Traditional does not equal “right”:  I grew up in a house, but it was only 1000 square feet – the way I see it, there’s not much difference between a house that size and a condo the same size.  My parents have been asking us when we’re going to move into a house for as long as we’ve lived in this condo.  I think it’s because it’s all they’ve ever known anyone to do, and they think that we or our kids are missing out on something.  Recently though, they’ve started asking when we might consider moving into a slightly larger condo so that they will have room to stay when they come to visit.  Sometimes we just need to look at things a little differently, without any preconceived notions about what is the “right” way to do things.
We’ve managed to stay small by doing a couple of things really well:
  1. We’ve made room for people, not stuff:  We’ve decluttered a huge amount of our belongings (2676 alone in 2011 so far!) and continue to eliminate unnecessary belongings from our home.  We have nine pieces of furniture and no need or desire for any more.  We’re enjoying the space we have, as limited as it may seem – and when we feel like our space is too small, we just head outside to get some fresh air and enjoy one of the parks nearby with our kids.
  2. We’ve procrastinated:  As easy as it would have been to bow to the pressure from society, family members and friends and move straight away into a house as soon as we’d had children, we’ve managed to keep things simple and stay put.  By not rushing into such a significant financial and lifestyle commitment, we’re saving money every month by not having a mortgage payment and being able to enjoy more time with our family.  Had we bought a house, I would most certainly be back to working a 9-5 job again, rather than spending my days at home with my boys.

I’ve had family members tell me to my face, “I could never live in a space that small.”  That’s okay, you don’t have to.  But some of us are okay with it, happy even.  And if you’re looking for evidence that it’s possible to live a full life in a small space, check out Apartment Therapy – they always have fabulous, teeny-tiny homes that are small on space but big on function and personality.

the minimaList: grocery shopping

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Reusable produce bags from Flip & Tumble

I went grocery shopping alone on Sunday night.  While this might be a regular occurrence for most people, it was the first time in nearly three years that I had gone to the grocery store without either one of my kids.  And let me tell you, it felt like a little piece of heaven.  So good, in fact, that I might start grocery shopping every Sunday night and consider it a little date with myself.  It was so nice not to have to tell anyone to “stop touching that,” or “keep your hands to yourself,” or “stop calling your brother ‘marshmallow’.”  Yes, it was divine.

We’re trying to be minimal with our grocery shopping, both with the amount of money we are spending, as well as taking into consideration the amount of room we have to store the food before it is consumed.  Recently, we’ve switched grocery stores – from Costco to another local grocery chain.  It was just too easy to spend over $200 on each trip to Costco, and we would find that a couple of days after we did a bit shop that we didn’t have a lot of ‘real’ food left.  We have a tiny kitchen, so we have to be a bit strategic with what we are buying and how often we are shopping.  We have very little room for storing food, but I don’t like to open the cupboards and find nothing there – unfortunately, I don’t find that to inspire me to cook much of anything at all.  We don’t plan our meals in advance, but we do have a loose plan for what we are shopping for every week.  We don’t eat out very much and we have two boys to feed in addition to ourselves (one of whom is a very picky eater).

Here’s how we take minimalism into account at the grocery store:

  1. Shop on the perimeter of the store – It’s easier to shop only the perimeter of the store, where all the most simple, healthy and least processed food items are located.  There is literally no room for junk food in our house – primarily because my children will choose it over real food (every.single.time.), but also because we don’t have the physical space for it.  I would estimate we are buying about 90% of our groceries from the produce (fruit & veggies), meat, and dairy (milk, eggs and cheese) sections of the store.
  2. Choose items with no packaging or as little packaging as possible – Choosing food with less packaging or as little packaging as possible is the right choice for the environment, but it’s also the right choice for your health.  Chances are good that the food you find at the store that is packaged up the wazoo isn’t really that healthy for us anyway.  We try to buy mostly fruit and vegetables – it’s good for us and there’s no packaging to send to the landfill.
  3. Walk to the store or take public transit – I found this one out the hard way.  I took the car to the store on Sunday and it was a bit of a headache.  I find it more enjoyable to walk to the grocery store than to drive – when I had the car I had to drive to the store, find the right parking lot for the store (it’s underground, so not as simple as it might seem), try to not lose my parking ticket while in the store, and then remember to get my parking ticket validated on my way out of the store.  Walking in the fresh air is a lot more relaxing, it’s free, and it’s better for the environment.  And it doesn’t take as much brain power.
  4. Bring your own reusable bags – I know reusable shopping bags are pretty popular these days, but it bears repeating that they are so much better for the environment than their plastic counterparts.  I’ve found now that I am in the habit of remembering to take reusable bags with me whenever I leave the house, it’s not a big deal.  I much prefer the reusable cloth bags to plastic, and they’re less likely to break too!  I even invested recently in a handful of reusable bulk/produce bags from Carebags, a Vancouver-based company.  I love that when I get home I don’t have a million extra little plastic bags from the items I bought in the produce or bulk sections of the store that now have to find their way into the garbage.
  5. Do not buy anything in the check-out aisle – The product placement in the check out aisle is a marketer’s dream, and we’re all the perfect target for impulse purchases as we stand waiting for the person in front of us to check out.  If you’re looking to save money, this is one good place to start not buying.

Taking all of these things into account, we’ve found it’s possible to keep an appropriate amount of delicious, healthy food in our home, as well as save on our grocery bill and save waste from the landfill.  I’m planning to start visiting our local Farmer’s Market regularly when it opens in June – I’ll be walking there and taking my reusable bags with me!